Professor’s study of lemurs helps them, conservation and medicine
Patricia Wright loves Madagascar and its lemurs — and the country returns the favor. On July 2, Wright will inaugurate a state-of-the-art, four-story research center adjacent to a rainforest — complete with a high-speed Internet connection. At the same time, the Stony Brook anthropology professor will receive her third Legion of Honor medal, becoming the first foreigner to receive three of the island nation’s highest awards.
The star-studded opening of the facility — called Namanabe (for Friendship) Hall — will have over 600 guests. The attendees span the world, from Stony Brook President Samuel Stanley, to Madagascar’s minister of the environment, to the vice rector of the University of Helsinki, Finland, to the ambassador for the U.S. to Madagascar, Eric Wong, to local kings from 33 villages, and 21 traditional healers.
The building, which overlooks a waterfall, river and rainforest and has a garden and solar panels on the roof, will provide a home for the study of biodiversity and infectious disease.
Wright, who has been studying lemurs since 1985, will soon announce that there are three kinds of dwarf lemurs in nearby Ranomafana National Park. Previously, scientists believed the park only contained one species of dwarf lemur. Ranomafana has 14 species of lemurs, one of the highest counts for a single park in the world.
Wright has a long list of notable achievements in her studies of the Madagascar primates, whose name comes from the lemures of Roman mythology because of the animal’s ghostly calls and reflective eyes.
In the 1980s, Wright was searching for the greater bamboo lemur, which some scientists believed had become extinct. She not only found the endangered animal, but also discovered the golden bamboo lemur, a species scientists didn’t even know existed.
For the second year in a row, she was a finalist in the $100,000 Indianapolis Prize, the top award for animal conservation. While she didn’t win this year, she was one of only six finalists from a competitive field of conservation biologists.
“It’s a great honor,” said Wright. “Many fantastic people are on that list that have done amazing things. I’m proud to be a part of that.”
Stuart Pimm, the Doris Duke professor of conservation at Duke University, called Wright “Madagascar’s savior” for working to conserve an environment scientists describe as the “eighth continent” for its remarkable diversity of species, some of which are threatened or going extinct.
“Nobody does conservation work in Madagascar without coming under her influence,” Pimm declared. The new research facility Wright helped build is “an amazing meeting house for people who want to protect the Malagasy environment. That contribution will last for decades. It’s a very tangible achievement.”
Wright explained that her current research, which she conducts in Ranomafana, addresses three questions. First, she is studying lemur behavioral ecology and demography and aging in the wild.
Second, she is looking closely at the mouse lemur, the world’s smallest primate. Some mouse lemurs in captivity, who were as young as four years old, developed Alzheimer’s. She is tracking 500 mouse lemurs in the wild. So far, she has examined wild mouse lemurs as old as 10 and hasn’t found any similar cases. That could be because lemurs that suffer from age-related cognitive problems could become easier targets for predators. It also could be related to the mouse lemur’s diet or to its more active lifestyle in the rain forest.
And, finally, she is examining seed dispersal in trees by lemurs. She’s planning to study how far away seeds get from the parent tree. She also wants to see if seeds from a wide range of canopy trees with large, sweet fleshy fruits that pass through the digestive system of a lemur sprout faster and live longer.
“We’re really interested in ecosystem dynamics,” she explained. “To really understand how to restore a habitat, we have to know how it works to begin with. That’s not easy in a rainforest.”
Although she applies science to just about everything she does professionally, Wright knows she needs much more than good intentions and a clipboard to wander through the rainforest to study lemurs.
“Whenever you are exploring in new places, when you meet people, you have to be a little cautious: they don’t know who you are and you don’t know who they are. You have to obey the rules of the local culture,” she explains.
She visits with the village elders first, to describe what she’s doing. She travels with permits signed by authorities. She has put considerable effort into sharing information about the rainforest and about health with the Malagasy (the name for people from Madagascar).
“When we’re dealing with health, we like to have it science-based,” she said. “We’re not just dispensing pills. We like to do health and hygiene education to prevent health problems before they happen.”
In addition to her scientific contribution, Wright has helped build and shape communities around the rainforest, Pimm said.
“She has done an extraordinary job in ensuring that people in the local community benefit from having a national park right next to them,” observed Pimm, who has known Wright for more than 15 years. “There is now a community of small businesses that have learned through [her] leadership.”
In addition to respecting the people in the remote areas where she treks — often on foot and while carrying her own food and cooking utensils — Wright remains aware of other threats.
“I’m quite a careful person for someone who does all these crazy things,” she offered.
Indeed, she has encountered the deadly fer-de-lance snake — a reptile whose venom can be fatal to humans. Always on the lookout for the deadly snakes, she has seen them several times. She was on a trail following monkeys one night when she encountered another dangerous creature. She explained that the path was wet, so neither one could hear the other coming. She rounded a bend and stopped inches from a jaguar.
“There we were, eye to eye,” she recounted. “I thought to myself: that animal is bigger than me. I’m getting off the trail.”
The predatory cat jumped away, perhaps because a headlight Wright wore to navigate through the soggy jungle confused him.
While assiduously avoiding jungle cats, Wright has tried to attract sponsors for her research.
In April, she held a rock concert at Centre Valbio, where the U.S. Embassy invited some of the wealthiest people in the country to enjoy music by popular Malagasy bands while learning about research in the rainforest.
“What I actually do is very complex,” she explained. “It’s very important that the science is not done in a vacuum. It has to be incorporated into public awareness.”
As for the future, Namanabe Hall, Wright hopes, is just another step in research and conservation in Madagascar.
“There are so many things we need to make the research dream come true,” she offered. “I would love to put sensors out into the forest that could stream back to our network and databases information on microclimate and animals. The Namanabe Hall is just the beginning of what I hope will be a fountain of inspiration to study this tropical rainforest in innovative ways and to study and assist the people, too.”